Research Brief

A confluence of forces is driving Japan to reassess its security policy. Chief among them are the diminution of the former Soviet threat and the stinging international criticism Japan received for its halting response during the Persian Gulf War. Perhaps the most obvious ramification of the demise of the Soviet threat is that Japan has less need to rely on the United States as a guarantor of its security. This is not to say that Japan has no security challenges. Russia's military capabilities, although waning, are still formidable, and Japan has made no substantial rapprochement with that country. The continuing dispute over four small islands known in Japan as the Northern Territories has been a stumbling block to closer relations. Japan also sees other security challenges, including the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, a multination dispute over the Spratly Islands, and the burgeoning military capabilities in China.

Japan learned three main lessons from the Gulf War. First was that the post-Cold War era would not be free of the types of armed conflict that can draw many nations into war. The second lesson was that as the United Nations plays a larger role in peacekeeping, Japan must assume a more prominent role in that body. Finally, Japan learned that, in a crisis, the soldier gets more respect than the banker. In spite of its large financial contribution, Japan emerged from the Gulf War with a tarnished international reputation.

The reduced security threat and the painful lessons of the Gulf War have caused the Japanese to consider whether they want to continue playing a subordinate role to the United States or to assume a more independent and thus prominent role in world affairs. Japan can accomplish the latter only if it abandons its somewhat anomalous position as a nation with enormous economic power but modest military strength The mainstream of political thought, which includes the military, business leaders, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), strongly supports the U.S.-Japan security relationship. The Japanese public, which normally tends to be more pacifist than the mainstream LDP leadership, is less enthusiastic in its support. The media, traditionally pacifist, frequently criticize the government for being too subservient to the United States. The nationalists, a relatively small minority, favor remilitarization so that Japan can conduct its own defense and independent foreign policy.

The ongoing reassessment of security policy appears to be leading the Japanese to a number of conclusions about national security policy:

  • They need to support the international security organizations as a way of counterbalancing U.S.dominance.
  • They must at least be able to participate in peacekeeping operations.
  • They need to regain the respect of other nations, especially that of their Asian neighbors. Visible steps in this direction include participating in military peacekeeping operations, extending sincere apologies for World War II transgressions, and settling legitimate claims arising from those transgressions.
  • They need to assess their business culture to determine if they are engaging in predatory practices; if this assessment convinces them that their methods are legitimate, they need to find a way to convince other nations of the value of those practices.
  • They need to maintain their relationship, even if modified, with the United States. Problems notwithstanding, the United States is a good friend.

The U.S. Response to the Japanese Reassessment

Given these conclusions, Japan can be expected to pursue a larger role in regional and global affairs. That pursuit will inevitably alter the U.S.-Japan relationship. Fukuyama and Oh argue that the United States will have to modify its relationship, both with Japan and with Asia, as follows:

  • The U.S.-Japan security treaty must remain the cornerstone of any broader U.S. security policy for Asia. In the context of this relationship, however, the United States should support Japan's decision to develop a peacekeeping role for Japanese troops, accept Japan's taking a more active role in its own defense, and face the fact of Japan's having a greater role in the conduct of the alliance.
  • The United States should pay close attention to the emergence of Asian regionalism as a supplement to the U.S.- Japan security treaty. Rather than rejecting such efforts out of hand, it should consider whether some forms of Asian regionalism might, as with that in Europe, serve U.S. interests.
  • The United States should also establish a forum for ongoing dialogue with Japan and the rest of Asia.
  • For the United States to continue an effective role in Asia, it needs to develop a deeper understanding of Asian politics, economics, and culture. To do so, it should create a more balanced foreign policy organization, which currently has an Atlantic bias, by expanding its staff of Asian specialists.

Perhaps most important for future U.S.-Japan security relations will be U.S. recognition that the future will call for the United States to play its role in Asia as an equal partner rather than as a dominating leader.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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